A professor receives a phone call from a childhood friend that awakens past memories and makes him rethink his sense of self.


By Lucas Thornton

For the past two years, Professor Chirovsky’s wife had been lighting candles before dinner. She started it as a whimsy. Every night, two wax candles were placed in the center of the table before being lit and admired over the course of dinner. The professor started out disliking his wife’s whimsy, but over time, with each successive dinner and waxed-over candle, he had grown able to tolerate seeing his wife’s face through a slight veil of flames. Tonight was no different, but, since this had been going on for quite a while, not a single annoyed thought crossed the professor’s mind as his wife put a plate of food in front of him and sat down in her usual spot, across from him.

In her usual spot, Mrs. Chirovsky cut her pork chops in her usual style—rigidly carving her meat against the plate until the table rattled underneath—while the shine of the candle’s flame made her blonde hair glimmer in its usual golden way. Her hair, in his younger years, delighted him. Its color, which recalled images of sun-lit hay basking in old-world fields among other poetics, served as a reminder of sorts. It reminded him of all he had accomplished, all he had strived for, and everything unique he had desired which he knew that his family back home would have despised. Her hair still delighted him, but time and cohabitation had drained him of the impetuous, boyish delight that once filled his being when he laid eyes on her. This was the natural progression of things. He did not begrudge it, he merely accepted it, annoying dinner candles and all.

The professor felt the table rattle as he cut his own piece. He chewed, tasted, swallowed. It tasted all right. Fortunately, he was not particularly hungry. In fact, he would have been fine with not eating at all, but that was senseless. At six-forty-five, one ate in the Chirovsky household after all.

He deposited another sliver of pork into his mouth before hearing his wife speak up.

“What do you think will happen to that boy in your class?” Mrs. Chirovsky continued eating as soon as she posed her question. With her mouth moving in constant motion and the light of the candles illuminating her cheeks, the professor saw the wrinkles lining the perimeter of her lips stretching and tightening. Another reminder, he thought, but those rough lines were incomparable to his own. If he reflected the knife he was holding in just the right way, he could have seen his own lined and ragged face, curved and marked by age.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s very unfortunate, very. I fear what they do to him. I don’t think he deserves what he gets.”

His eating had stalled. A concerned look, which had recently installed itself into the contours of his face because of this situation, appeared.

“I truly believe they’ll eat him alive. I mean, you’ve reported other students who actually meant what they did and they got torn apart. Usually, in situations like these, the people who mean the least amount of harm end up getting in the most amount of trouble. He didn’t mean any trouble and now he’s getting skewered. That’s how things work, I suppose, or at least, that’s how the committee works.”

She was stacking the facts up against him. This boy’s indiscretion had somehow become his doing. Her matter-of-factness always stalled him, caused him to think, ruminate on how he could have prevented this. “Yes, but you see Dunya, I had to call committee.”

“Yes, had to, had to call the honor committee because of what? Oh yes, departmental policy. Your hands are tied on the matter; I know you’ve told me. No recourse, no anything, you’re as helpless as he is right now.”

The perfection of her English also intimidated him. She was normally perfect in speech, but, when the intensity of her words reached a certain point, her vibrancy, her determined attempt to deconstruct him as much as possible in a language not her own truly caused him to struggle, to stutter, to resort back to phrases, which to certain people are considered common-place, but to him, they are considered antiquated, ludicrous, foreign-sounding.

Basta, please. I try, my hands are not tied because the matter is out of my hands.”

“Is out,” she corrected.

“Yes, is out of my hands, thank you,” he had to thank her, a thankless grammatical correction was grounds for another bout of matter-of-fact disdain.

“But,” he went on, “it is,” he made sure to include that silly one-syllable verb this time, “not my fault, not my fault at all, that Chris did not consult me about using, reusing, yes reusing a paper from passed class. A mistake yes, a simple mistake, but not my own.”

“I was not accusing you of it being your own mistake. I was merely saying that you could’ve handled it yourself. He’s a freshman, first semester of university, he does not need to get a failing grade in a class because of a dumb mistake like this. He needs an admonition, or, uh,” she stuttered, looking for the correct colloquial combination, “a slap on the wrist. His academic career will be stained because of this.”

“I agree. I wanted…” the professor’s explanation was interrupted by a phone call. A staccato of electric rings came from the living room. The professor looked to his wife and noticed that during their spar she had stopped eating like him. She usually devoured her dinner.

There were no declarations of “I will get it,” or anything of the like. The couple knew who should pick up the house phone if it rang during their dinner. It was the professor. He rose from his seat, pushed it in, and looked to his wife for a second time. Her lined hands were crossed in front of her lined mouth. The candlelight revealed her age and her apathy. Her eyes did not even follow him as he quickly crossed the threshold into the living room.

The phone rested in its cradle beside the living room’s only loveseat. A red light flashed above the screen. He grasped it, pulling it from its cradle, and interpreted the number displayed on the screen as foreign, an international call from Russia. A momentary period of questioning crossed his mind, but all questions ceased once he put the phone up to his ear and instinctively pressed the “TALK” button.

“Yes, hello?” the professor asked, sitting down.

Kostya, Kostya, Kostya,” he heard through the telephone. No one had said his name like that for ages. So small and childlike, the name’s incantation reminded him of his mother, but, no, the voice was masculine, husky, and desperate-sounding.

Konstatin Ivanovich, privyet,” the voice became clearer. Its desperation was replaced with morose. The professor began to piece together the voice’s tones: the cawing diminutive, the brusque hello, it all reminded him of a friend he had last seen at the university in Moscow, but, before those final autumnal days as a student, he had seen Andrei Solomonovich every day; in the slim cobbled streets of his village, in the hallways of their state school, and in the attic of his house, which served as makeshift temple, yeshiva, and gathering place, among other things.

Privyet, Andrei…” Time, its passing, made him unsure of his speech, confused as to what exactly to say. Evidently, the passing of time did not cause Andrei any heed. In Russian, the only language Andrei knew fluently at the end of university, he continued to talk.

“I know it’s been a long time,” the desperation and morosity had faded off into a cordial seriousness, “I’m actually quite surprised the number you gave still works. Your mother says hers doesn’t.” The professor instinctually translated everything his old friend said. He heard the syllables, the unmistakably Russian syllables, and turned them into unmistakably Russian words, which thereby formed Russian sentences. But somehow, through some activity of the brain—which had been conditioned, for the past twenty-five years, to turn everything he heard into well-formed, or nearly well-formed, English sentences—he found himself translating his native language. It was strange, hearing a friend in such a way.

Da,” he responded, making sure his own foreign-sounding syllables were as clear as his friend’s, “dolgo.”

“When I last saw you, my Afanasy Andreevich was not even born.” Andrei paused, cleared his throat, and continued. “But, how is your family? Do you have children now? Are you still married to that shiksa?”

The professor was going to respond with a firm da, but Andrei cut in apologetically: “Not shiksa, she’s a woman like any other. When I asked your mother about your number, she just went on and on about her, calling her a shiksa every minute, but she’s an elder. You can’t just change someone’s mind after they’ve been thinking the same thing for seventy years.”

The apology prevented the professor from passively attacking his friend. Twelve years ago, hearing his wife called a shiksa, among other Yiddish expletives, would have left him unimpressed, indifferent. But presently, in this current American age, a long-forgotten word coiling its two strange syllables around his wife’s being inflamed him a bit, causing him to briefly recall the first, rather innocuous, moment both mother and father proceeded to call his newly acquired Dunyasha a shiksa as he came in one late night after having a rendezvous with her in a field of buckwheat. He was out with his friends, he said, but they saw through everything he had to say.

“Dunya and I are still together,” he began slowly, mentally translating every word that flowed through his two lips, “We are doing well,” he paused, unsure of how to go on, “Jakob is nineteen now. He is at the college I teach at. He is doing well, very well.” He gave a quick laugh, knowing what he was about to say would entertain Andrei. “He even has a girlfriend now, who happens to be a shiksa.”

He waited for a similar quick bout of laughter or any sign of amicable reciprocity, but none came. In fact, nothing came for a tense minute, nothing flooded into his ear except the hum of the landline: electrical silence, it disturbed the professor.

“Andrei… Andrei… privyet?” he said, wondering if some mechanical synapse or undersea wire had short-circuited somewhere in the vast five-thousand miles which separated the two.

A voice, once again morose but this time also quavering, broke the silence. “Yes, yes, I am here, do not worry.”

Another long pause ensued. During this time, the professor rose from the loveseat and glanced into the kitchen. His wife had finished her meal. She was cleaning up the table now, wiping down her spot but leaving his barely touched pork chops alone. She looked up at him as she was wiping everything down. Their eyes momentarily met. The disaffected gray of her irises said she had no interest in whom he was speaking with; her current interest lay in her candles, which she blew out, one by one, bending her head down and shooting a bolt of air into the swaying flames.

The professor was sitting on the loveseat again, mindlessly stroking the soft fabric by his thighs, when Andrei spoke up again with a voice devoid of morosity but filled with a cold exactitude which he likened to his wife’s English-inflicted exactitude. However, the main difference between their exactitudes laid not in the linguistics of their speech, English and Russian, but in their purpose. Andrei’s exactitude did not wish to cut his friend or demean him in any way, he only wanted to convey the facts, which he did, thoroughly.

“Last week, Afanasy died on his way to the train station. A truck driver, who was late dropping off a package at the port, hit him on the driver’s side. They said he was killed instantly. The truck driver is okay. He mangled the truck’s grill with my son’s brains, but he’s doing fine except for the few years in prison he’ll have to face. It won’t be that long. It was an accident. He didn’t have any other accidents on record. It was just one of those things that happen at the will of God.

You see, I didn’t know about it for a few hours. He was picking up his girlfriend from the station. My wife and I assumed they got carried away with each other since they hadn’t seen each other in four months. Walking out the door, I could see the excitement in his eyes like it had been building up inside for the last few weeks and it was almost getting ready to bust out of him, eyes first. But the girl, she’s a nice one, she goes to school in Germany and she’s entirely shaken up by this whole thing. She alerted me to it, over the phone.

I was sitting on the porch about to go back inside because I knew the samovar was heating up for afternoon tea when the phone rang. My wife yelled at me to go get it. She screeched it. Her screeching surprised me since she was in bed with one of her headaches, but I obeyed and answered the phone. And there she was, on the other end, choking up and crying, blubbering like a baby. ‘He’s dead, he’s dead,’ she kept saying. I didn’t even ask who it was because I knew. Her shouts of ‘he’s dead’ didn’t even alert me to it. It was the blubbering. Her sobs, her quivers, her shakes, which I heard and pictured before she started speaking, told me my son had died.

Why else would a pretty little thing like her cry? A sparrow falling would not cause this? Only death would cause this, a death at the moment of reunification. These two had been hoping, praying, fantasizing about reuniting, but instead one gets death and the other unspeakable grief. How do you like that? Unspeakable, yes, but I speak it, probably because a father burying his son is almost bad as a lover burying her counterpart instead of seeing and kissing her counterpart.

She’s had to get injections like my wife. I’ve thought about getting them, but I simply cannot. I cannot waste a valuable second of waking life forgetting the absence of a son forty years younger than me. I would tear my clothes, wear sackcloth, and spread ashes upon my forehead, but I have already done it all. I would do it again, but I do not have the strength. I would have another funeral, but I cannot bury him twice. I would sit shiva for months on end if God allowed it, which is a funny thing. Since God allowed my son’s death, why can’t I sit shiva until I am a tired, old, and, most importantly, dead man?

“When I am buried, my son will already be buried. I can pray ceaselessly, but my son will still lie cold in the grave. I will do all the things that I have ever done, but my son will still be dead.”

Andrei stopped speaking. His exactitude had run out, made him breathless with the truth. He began to pant on the other end. A deep sigh, a long drawing of air, was heard before the soft sounds of muffled sobs were heard. The professor took all of this in, everything his friend had said, and processed it. In one language, he had heard it and in another he laid it out, chipping away each Russian phrase until it cracked and became a speakable English phrase, and dissected it until his friend’s translated monologue felt something more akin to a Chekhov story he taught his students instead of a heartrending confession from an old friend.

He thought back on the little he had said to his friend in his native, yet foreign, tongue. It sounded basic. The roughness and incongruence of his English would be more fitting to display and convey his condolences to his friend’s loss, but Andrei did not know any English. At least with his Russian, Andrei could hear the bare minimum of what he needed to hear. And what did he need to hear? It was something that was as unspeakable as the true nature of his grief. He said his son’s girlfriend’s grief was unspeakable, but the professor could tell what kind of black despair was hanging to each Russian word. Andrei had only summarized his grief, not expressed it fully. Andrei could tell every forgotten friend, arbitrary stranger, and uncaring fool about the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, but he would never begin to feel anything that resembled completeness, or a significant numbing of his despair until he rested beneath six feet of earth from head to toe.

So, the professor did the only thing he could do. The only thing he knew that could momentarily assail his grief. He reached back into his memory when he and Andrei saw each other every day when he was a lad reading about the Motherland in school and reading about Judah in the secrecy of his home. This was a time when his father instructed him in concealment, his mother instructed him in morals, and Andrei instructed him in mischief. As a boy, he took those things and combined them into a desire for more. He wanted more and he got more. It was simple, almost as simple as the thirty-six lines of Aramaic his father, the local rabbi, repeated over countless wooden boxes and Andrei, the local rascal, parodied on so many occasions. Despite years of getting more and more, these words had stuck with him.

“Andrei,” the professor began in Russian, “I know this has been done already, but I am going to do it again. God has no limit to this. You can say it as much as you want.”

The professor’s voice trailed off. Russian ceased and Aramaic began. The difficult syllables—Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba, May His great name be exalted and sanctified—flooded the phone, a one-thousand-year-old phrase of both grief and belief was traveling five thousand miles. He continued, enunciating the words perfectly, not tripping up on any lesser-known line, but persevering through thirty-six lines of Aramaic, which, though he had surely not spoken them for forty years, did not sound in the least bit foreign to him.

By the time he had finished the Kaddish, his friend’s soft sobs were no longer heard. The electric hum of silence was back, and, before saying a few more words of false-sounding Russian condolence, Andrei uttered an exact “spaseeba.” The next thing the professor heard out of his friend was the abrupt click of a finished call.

Professor Chirovsky put the phone back into the receiver and stared at it blankly. He thought about Andrei, his current grief, and his past mischief. He supposed there would be another two-and-a-half-decade gap before speaking to his childhood friend again. For that future time, the professor would probably be saying Kaddish for a different person.

In the kitchen, his wife was washing the few dishes she had used that night. His pork chops had been cleared away, and, when his wife saw that he was returning from that unexpected and long phone call, she said, “I’m sorry, I threw away your food. It was getting cold and I didn’t think you were coming back.”

He only responded when he had once again taken his place at the table. “It fine, I was not hungry anyway.”

She did not bother to correct him. She only asked, “Who was on the phone?”

“A friend,” he said, “an old one.”

Apparently, that was the extent of her curiosity. Within a few more minutes, she finished her dish duties and left the kitchen. Before leaving, she instinctively turned off the lights. The professor knew she did this out of habit and meant no ill will by it, but it slightly annoyed him. He wanted to say something spiteful in Russian, but he controlled it. He instead opted to think about Andrei.

In the dark with only the light of the living room trickling in at his feet, he thought how he could have said more. He could have said something really meaningful in Russian if he put his mind to it. It was the language of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky, he could have at least managed something halfway meaningful and mournful. But, then again, something halfway meaningful was still fifty-percent something else and that something else was usually pretentious, bland, and rote. He could have said more. In his younger days, he wrote Russian poetry some called startling. Perhaps, he could have summoned the last bit of his poetic energies and said something profound to memorialize Andrei’s poor Afanasy. But he didn’t; this was the case and this was reality. He could only hope his Kaddish had helped Andrei in some way. He hoped Andrei’s feeble thank you was truly meant rather than said out of politeness. He could never know what Andrei felt like and that scared him.

Professor Chirovsky’s wife came back to the kitchen to find her husband lighting the candles with the lighter she left in the center of the table. She gave him a puzzled look and said defiantly, “That boy you gave up to the honor committee, he’ll hate you.”

Professor Chirovsky looked up from the three lit candles and placed the lighter down. Their light illuminated his face, revealing every wrinkle, crack, and bump. Surrounded by the kitchen’s semi-darkness, his shining eyes, the only youthful part of his face, met his wife’s gray eyes.

“He is on his own,” the professor said.

Lucas Thornton graduated from UNC in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in English and comparative literature and philosophy. In 2022, Lucas began a three-year juris doctorate program at the UNC School of Law.